The measure of Sakshi Malik’s success
The Rohtak Olympian's journey is about more than just passion for wrestling and breaking gender barriers. It is her belief that Rio was just one destination
When Sakshi Malik won that supposedly unexpected bronze in the Rio Olympics, her already incredible story of success at the most competitive stage of international sports was used to tell an even grander tale: of gender empowerment against all odds. It was indeed; on her way to that bronze, Malik triumphed over not just better-trained opponents on the mat but also a stubbornly patriarchal society, as the multiple journalistic profiles done in the wake of her Olympic success have documented diligently. The fact that she came from a state where she could very well have been killed as a foetus—as thousands routinely are—made her story even more remarkable.
Besides the obvious gender narrative though, Malik’s saga of success perhaps also offers some clues about that one philosophical subject that every sports writer worth her salt has tried to address: the point of sport itself. What is it that drives a teenage girl (she was 12 when she started) from a semi-urban town to go day after day, year after year, to a stuffy gymnasium, full of seemingly intimidating men and heavy with the smell of piss and sweat? What is it that motivates her to wake up at the crack of dawn (according to Malik’s mother, there hasn’t been a single day in the last 12 years when she has had to wake her up) to practise her craft for 2 hours before going to school? What is it that stirs her enough to give up on friends, food and fun to be able to pin down opponents?
Often, the best of sports writers have contended that sport is much more than just the act of playing. Some of the greatest success stories definitely suggest that it is a great equalizing force in an increasingly unequal world: It lifts people out of poverty and squalor like few other vocations can. Mary Kom, for instance. Her father was a woodcutter; she was born in a state ravaged by an unending, bloody insurgency and an epidemic-like drug problem among young men and women. Boxing was her only shot at a better, normal life. And she boxed like her life depended on it. For it quite literally did.
However, Malik, ostensibly at least, has no reason to be half as dogged as she is. She comes from a fairly well-off family which owns several acres of land. In fact, their household currently has so many cars that there isn’t enough space to keep them (as a result, the BMW she was gifted after winning the bronze remains covered in the garage at all times). Also, unlike the Phogat sisters, there was no parental pressure or family legacy to live up to. Malik’s mother says she just took her to the Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium because “she was interested in sports". As simple as that. Yet her passion is almost unparalleled—and anyone who has known her even remotely would vouch for it.
For Malik, it is uncomplicated. She wrestles because she absolutely loves it. There’s no feeling better than pinning her opponents to the mat. There is no sound sweeter than the thud when she throws them on the mat.
On the cold grey December evening that I meet Malik, her mood seems to reflect the weather. She is withdrawn and doesn’t appear to be particularly up for conversation. It is the middle of the evening practice session (her second of the day). None of the boys and girls she is up against pose much of a threat to her. She pins everyone down. It is almost too easy. Doesn’t the lack of competition bore her? After all, it has been 12 years in the same gymnasium. And nothing has really changed in here. Except for a new mat and a few lights and fans. And, of course, the newest addition: multiple posters of Malik, wrapped in the tricolour, sporting the bronze medal, which keep watch as she crushes hapless young boys and girls.
“I got a medal in the Olympics, I could have quit. But I didn’t and I won’t. I love it," she tells me. But for how long? “I will do it as long as I want to. I am not even thinking of retiring."
Malik almost downplays the protests she had to face to take up wrestling. “Yes, people objected initially. They said things, but they came around." She insists it never bothered her. Not even having to practise against men? Isn’t wrestling a high-contact sport? Surely it was awkward initially? “No, never," she says with a tone of finality. It’s a trivial question. She doesn’t want to waste more time on it. She has to lift a last round of weights before calling it a day.
Malik is a bit of a lone wolf in the gymnasium. She doesn’t really deem it necessary to mingle with the starry-eyed youngsters who come up to her every now and then to say, “Hello didi." She responds to everyone cordially, with a smile, even corrects them on moves, but keeps a cautious distance. Does she get angry? Has she ever beaten up someone on the street because, well, we know she can? “No, I don’t waste my energy getting angry and beating up people outside the mat."
Since we are on the subject, what does she do when she is not wrestling? “Nothing actually. I don’t watch movies. I don’t go to parties. I am in my room resting when I am not practising."
It’s pack-up time at the gymnasium. Another day has ended. Another one, exactly identical, will begin in less than 12 hours. And she will be ready for it. Just like she has been for the last 12 years.
Malik is going to drive back home in a Datsun (she has recently been anointed its brand ambassador). A Datsun is not what she drives usually, though; it’s a Volkswagen Polo. The drive is short—and dotted with more hoardings of Malik.
The Maliks’ living room was the setting for one of the more euphoric visuals of 2016. It was here that Malik’s mother, Sudesh, jumped in joy in front of hordes of television cameras as her daughter staged an extraordinary comeback in the dying seconds of her bronze medal bout in the Rio Olympics. Sudesh says Sakshi called her soon after. What does a mother tell a daughter who has just won an Olympic medal? “I was crying," says Sudesh. “She told me, ‘Why are you crying? It’s a happy moment.’"
To say that Malik’s bronze medal-winning bout was a close affair would be grossly understating it. If ever there were to be a list of best last-minute turnarounds in any sport, it would be unfair to leave this one out. According to Malik, though, she didn’t for a moment think she was going to lose the bout. Not even when she was five points behind. If one watches the bout, it would be extremely difficult to objectively negate that claim. Malik’s body language doesn’t appear to change throughout. Not when she plummets to 0-5, not even when she gets it back to 5-5 (had the scoreline remained like that, Malik would have lost, since her opponent had scored a four-pointer earlier in the bout). It is only when Malik overtakes her opponent to make the score line 7-5 that she shows any traces of emotion (it finally read 8-5; Malik got an extra point because of an unsuccessful challenge by her opponent). It is almost like she knew she would win.
The confidence is not a matter of surprise for people who know her well. In an interview during the run-up to the Olympics, she had smilingly but very purposefully exclaimed: “Medal to mera hi hai (The medal will be mine)." As a much younger girl too, Malik had promised her mother something rather ambitious for a professional wrestler. “I was apprehensive about her wrestling because I had seen the ears of wrestlers becoming big and swollen. But she said, ‘Please mummy, I won’t let anyone hold me by the ears.’ And in all these years it hasn’t happened. Her ears are still like what they used to be," recalls Sudesh.
The kind of self-assurance Malik possesses is built on sacrifice, and no one knows that better than Sudesh. “I don’t remember the last time a friend of hers came home. I don’t even think she has any friends outside the circuit. She doesn’t socialize at all. No weddings, no family functions, nothing. Just practice."
The journey from Rohtak to Rio has a nice ring to it. But what is much more fascinating is the journey within. In 2016, it may have reached one of its best-ever places, but it was by no means the final destination.
The journey so far
2009 Silver at the Junior Asian Championships, Manila, in the 59kg category
2010 Bronze at the World Junior Championships, Budapest, in the 63kg category
2012 Gold at the Junior World Championships, Almaty, in the 63kg category
2013 Bronze at the Commonwealth Championship, Johannesburg, in the 63kg category
2014 Silver at the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow, in the 58kg category
2015 Bronze at the Asian Championships, Doha, in the 63kg category
2016 Bronze at the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, in the 58kg category